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He-Man and Orko stand side by side in Masters of the Universe: Revolution Image: Netflix

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Masters of the Universe: Revolution is all about selling action figures, but that’s how He-Man stories should be

Kevin Smith’s loving tribute continues in fine form

Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

In the year that Greta Gerwig and the Mattel corporation got a postmodern comedy movie about Barbie dolls nominated for Best Picture, here’s another tribute to a famous Mattel toy line that’s maybe a little less sophisticated but, in its own way, no less genuine or self-aware. Masters of the Universe: Revolution, a five-part animated special on Netflix, is an enjoyably over-the-top celebration of the kitschy 1980s action figures.

Revolution is also a continuation of, or sequel to, Revelation, a 10-part series that aired in two chunks in 2021. Both series were masterminded by nerd maven Kevin Smith, and picked up the adventures of He-Man, Skeletor, and their various outlandish pals more or less directly from where they were left off in the hit mid-’80s animated show.

Revelation’s genius was to revel in the unapologetic, heavy-metal excess of the Masters of the Universe… universe, and pay tribute to the look of the original toys and cartoon, while using a soapy, turbo-charged plotline to fully refurb the tone, continuity, and characters for the 21st century. Audaciously — in a move that one could claim was inspired by Twin Peaks: The Return without sounding completely silly — the first five episodes dispensed with He-Man and his meek alter-ego Prince Adam almost entirely, instead following the quest of He-Man’s friend Teela to save a threatened Eternia, resurrect He-Man, and realize her own potential.

By the end of the show, Teela had assumed the mantle of Sorceress and far exceeded her predecessor (and mother) in power, while erstwhile villains Skeletor and Evil-Lyn had swapped sides multiple times. Perhaps empowered by the fact that no one takes He-Man lore all that seriously, Smith delivered a reading of the material that was joyous, progressive, and even a little bit romantic. He focused on having fun with the characters, and gleefully upended the hierarchy of power on Eternia over and over as he did so.

Cyborg Skeletor appears with two bizarre minions in Masters of the Universe: Revolution Image: Netflix
Snake Teela, with a cobra head dress and green skin, in Masters of the Universe: Revolution Image: Netflix
He-Man assaults a vast green skeleton in Masters of the Universe: Revolution Image: Netflix
Adam and Teela lean in for a kiss in Masters of the Universe: Revolution Image: Netflix

In short: Revolution is no different. If you thought the series couldn’t possibly up the ante on Revelation in terms of personal drama, galactic stakes, and superpowered upgrades, think again. The series begins with Adam (now out and proud as He-Man) and Teela facing a new threat: A mechanized Skeletor has fused his dark magics with the techno-might of an android entity called Motherboard, and is out to enslave Eternia’s population in service to the demonic Hordak.

At the same time, Adam confronts his father King Randor’s mortality and faces a choice between ruling as king and continuing his adventure as He-Man — when, unexpectedly, his outcast uncle Keldor turns up. (If you know later iterations of Masters of the Universe, you’ll know that Smith is retrofitting some pretty significant lore into the original timeline by introducing Keldor.) Meanwhile, Teela sets herself the task of resurrecting heaven itself (Preternia, as it’s known in Masters of the Universe), which was sort of accidentally destroyed by Evil-Lyn (note: no longer evil) in Revelation.

It’s all very dramatic and all very fun. Once again, the voice cast brings it, although Sarah Michelle Gellar has sadly not returned as Teela (the role is now played by Melissa Benoist). Mark Hamill’s outrageous Skeletor outdoes even his Joker for wickedly sarcastic vocal contortions, Lena Headey is smooth and sultry as Evil-Lyn, and there are new star turns from Keith David as Hordak and none other than William Shatner as Keldor, who sounds as stentorian as ever, and at least two decades younger than his 92 years.

Product image of a cyborg Skeletor action figure with robot legs and a ram’s head arm Image: Mattel

There’s a catch, of course, which could cost you a pretty penny if you are a fan. Just like Revelation before it, Revolution delights in redesigning its characters, sometimes multiple times, as they continue to combine and augment their powers in the course of Eternia’s eternal techno-magical arms race. New outfits, new powers, and new looks can mean only one thing: new action figures, which is clearly the reason Mattel commissioned the whole thing in the first place.

But this is right and proper for a He-Man story. The character was always an action figure first and an animated hero second, and if he and his wild menagerie of supporting players weren’t constantly evolving into new forms, they would lose their reason to exist. Also, the designs are very cool, in a defiantly uncool way; there’s no denying the badass appeal of Snake Teela or Cyborg Skeletor. (The toys themselves are pretty good quality too, by the way.)

There’s no point being a purist about He-Man. That’s not in the spirit of the thing. This is a series about heroes and villains with bulging muscles, huge mechs, tiny clothes, and gothic capes cackling and roaring as they battle for control of the entire universe. Revolution seems to push that as far as it will go, but the great thing is, you know that its makers will outdo themselves again next time. They have to. Where else will the new toys come from?

Masters of the Universe: Revolution is now streaming on Netflix.